Bollywood actresses drive Indian slimming fashion

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Bollywood actresses are slimming down, as an increasing vogue for showing bare flesh on screen and Western ideas about body size and beauty take hold in India's big cities.

Whereas former leading ladies like Mumtaz and Zeenat Aman once found their curvaceous figures no barrier to success, their modern-day counterparts are as famous for their diet and fitness regimes as their acting and dancing skills.

"There's been a lot of changes in the last decade, whether it's in modelling or in Bollywood," said nutritionist and fitness consultant Venu Hirani, who works in India's entertainment capital, Mumbai.

"Today, the basic requirement for someone wanting to go into either is that they need to be a (US) size zero," she told AFP.

Actress Kareena Kapoor has been the focus of much media attention since appearing in a bikini in the 2008 film "Tashan" (Style) - a significant development in an industry known for its chaste treatment of romantic love.

The 29-year-old star slimmed down dramatically for the role and reportedly collapsed on set.

She has since had to deny suggestions that her current weight is unhealthy, instead attributing her smaller size to eating correctly, regular exercise and yoga.

"My size zero is such a hot topic of discussion... that when Saif (Ali Khan, her actor boyfriend) and I eat out at a restaurant, people don't stare so much at us as... what is on my plate," she told the Bombay Times newspaper.

"Some even ask the maitre d': 'What is she ordering for dinner?' I love the curiosity element," she said.

Other Bollywood actresses, like Bipashu Basu and Shilpa Shetty, have launched fitness or yoga videos.

Some, such as Priyanka Chopra and Deepika Padukone, often talk about the importance of sports in their health regime.

But while Kapoor and others can turn to their own personal dietician and fitness trainers for expert guidance, some health professionals fear the phenomenon could contribute to dangerous, unregulated weight loss among fans.

Hirani said she has seen an influx of young women coming to her for advice on how to lose weight - even though they may not need it.

"Maybe about a decade ago you would have had people come to me for post-pregnancy weight loss, or people with health conditions," she said.

"Now I have more and more of the younger generation who don't really need to lose weight but tell me they need to knock off five kilogrammes."

Hirani and Roshni Pithawala, another Mumbai-based consultant dietician and counsellor, said Bollywood and the growth of Internet access, cable television and advertising are changing the way Indians look at their bodies.

Few formal studies on the prevalence of eating disorders in India exist but one report suggested that conditions like anorexia and bulimia were increasing, although they were yet to reach levels found in Western countries.

"Socio-economic cultural changes and Westernization could result in the culture-change syndrome of eating disorders in India today," the study, published in the journal Indian Pediatrics in May 2007, said.

The situation was following a similar pattern to the West, with higher socio-economic groups affected, it added.

Pithawala said peer pressure among teenage girls to look good, family and school pressures played a part, as did a lack of education in Indian schools about nutrition and healthy eating.

When they look at their heroes and heroines, "they create an ideal image, which might not be the reality for them. That person may have spent millions of rupees to get that figure. It's an unrealistic goal," she said.

Kapoor herself is also alert to the problem, saying what works for her might not work for everyone.

"What is good enough for me can never be good for you and vice versa," she told the Bombay Times. "All I can say is never starve. Eat right and you will go places both with your shape and your soul."

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